The NFL’s controversial and baffling catch rules came back to play a huge role in an all-time great Super Bowl

Kevin C. Cox/Getty

  • The Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots, 41-33, on Sunday night after Zach Ertz scored a go-ahead touchdown with just over two minutes to play.
  • Ertz’s touchdown was controversial upon review, as he made a catch, dived for the end zone, and bobbled the ball.
  • Referees had to determine whether Ertz had established himself as a runner or whether he was a receiver.
  • While the referees seemed to get the call right, the NFL may feel additional pressure to clarify the rule so that the league’s biggest game doesn’t come down to the rule book.

The Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl, 41-33, on Sunday night, and they needed two controversial rulings on the NFL’s catch rules to do it.

The first came in the third quarter when the referees ruled that running back Corey Clement had not only stayed in bounds but had control of the ball as he caught it.

The second came on perhaps the biggest play of the game, when Nick Foles found Zach Ertz on a slant on third-and-7 with 2:21 to play. Ertz made a run for the end zone, got hit, and dived for the touchdown. He lost the ball after entering the end zone, however, recovering it after it bounced in the air.

The play gave the refs a difficult decision to make: Was Ertz a runner, in which case he just needed to break the plane to make it a touchdown, or was he a receiver, in which case he needed to control the ball to the ground? He clearly did not do the latter, so then the question became whether Ertz made two steps and a football move to make himself a runner.

After a long review, the refs decided that Ertz was indeed a runner and that he had broken the plane and scored a touchdown.

The Eagles went up 38-33.

Here’s the play:

On the ensuing drive, the Eagles came up with a crucial strip-sack on Tom Brady that gave them the ball back and later allowed them to kick a field goal that put them up 41-33.

The ruling may have stung Pittsburgh Steelers fans, who saw the Steelers get a regular-season touchdown overruled on a very similar play against the Patriots (though in that case, tight end Jesse James appeared to be a receiver, rather than a runner).

This year’s Super Bowl was a classic, yet the NFL can’t be happy that the game came down to a controversial and confusing rule. During the NBC broadcast, the analyst Cris Collinsworth had previously exclaimed “I give up!” when the referees ruled that Clement had scored a touchdown. The ruling on Ertz’s touchdown seemed less controversial, but fans could quibble with the call nonetheless. And Clement’s touchdown ended up playing a big part in a game decided by eight points.

The NFL’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, has said he would like to rewrite the catch rule, but that pressure may be magnified now that the NFL’s biggest game came down to, “Was that a catch?”